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Rafting, hiking, fishing in and around Yosemite's river ... the Merced.

Rafting, hiking, fishing in and around Yosemite's River . . . the Merced

There's a peace on the Merced River thatis as unexpected as it is welcome.

Unexpected, because the Merced is edgedby State Highway 140 from the moment it emerges from Yosemite National Park until it disappears into the canyon just below Briceburg.

Welcome, because it's so accessible. FewYosemite visitors are aware that nine commercial river-runners offer a variety of day and overnight trips down this stretch of river. Even fewer know that improving fishing along 3 miles of the Merced just below the park recently earned it wild trout status from the Fish and Game Commission. And only a handful of hikers have seen the often intense wildflower displays along the South Fork.

Indeed, few people know that a proposalto develop the hydroelectric potential of this stretch of free-flowing river could result in damming one portion of the river and drying up another. And news that legislation has been introduced to make the Merced a wild and scenic river has received only scattered attention.

Yosemite visitors (the park is a 4-hourdrive from San Francisco, about 6 from Los Angeles) can easily sample this stretch of the Merced in a day. Accommodations in the park and the El Portal area can be full on weekends this time of year. For help, call the Yosemite Park and Curry Company at (209) 252-4848.

Waterfalls, rapids, and crystal pools

Most people think of the Merced as Yosemite'sriver. Flowing from snowfields high in the Sierra, it streams over Nevada Falls, then plummets over Vernal Falls in a thundering curtain that clouds the air with icy gusts of mist, before it tumbles clear and cold into Yosemite Valley. Once in the valley, the river meanders quietly: fragile, inviting, and heavily used.

Below the valley, the canyon turns narrowand steep. Granite slabs break the river into frothing rapids and long, clear pools.

From El Portal, a mile below the park,State 140 edges the south side of the river. It's close enough to provide easy access for hiking, fishing, and picnicking along the entire 18 miles of river downstream to Briceburg. But it's also high enough above the river to be mostly unobtrusive.

Along the north bank is the abandonedbed of the Yosemite Valley Railway, which carried passengers from Merced to El Portal. Now used mostly by hikers, the level grade is still drivable in places.

Small dam, but a long diversion

A proposed hydroelectric project couldseriously impact the river. Known locally as the Keating proposal, it would begin just below the park entrance with a 10-foot dam to divert the river through a 4-mile detour. The water would drop through penstocks to generate about 22 megawatts of power before being released back into the original riverbed.

The result would be to reduce flows to atrickle in 5 critical miles used by river-runners and anglers. The proposal is under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which could decide as early as this summer.

A wild and scenic recommendation

Last fall, a joint use plan by the U.S.Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service recommended that 130 miles of the Merced's main and south forks be designated wild, scenic, and recreational from their headwaters to Lake McClure. If enacted, this would prohibit dams and diversions on either river.

At our deadline, wild and scenic legislationhad been introduced by Senator Pete Wilson (S 275) and Representative Tony Coelho (HR 317). Both recognize the urgent need to get it passed before the FERC acts on the Keating proposal.

Best way to see for yourself what's atstake is to plan a visit. Now through June, the weather is warm but not too hot; river-running is at its best, and fishing will pick up as the water gets lower.

Getting your feet--and face--wet

The BLM rates the Merced class 3 to 4(exciting to scary). At our deadline, the Sierra snowpack was thin, and outfitters feel the river may be runnable this year only from mid-April to mid-June. Most day trips begin near Indian Flat Campground, 5 1/2 miles below El Portal, and end at Briceburg or a few miles farther downstream.

From the highway, the Merced looks deceptivelytame, but even in moderate to low flows a number of chutes offer white-knuckle thrills, with standing waves dousing all hands. There are a few stops: to scout rapids and for lunch--likely a doit-yourself buffet on granite boulders.

Overnight trips usually run the day-tripstretch twice, but may, depending on water conditions, continue through the canyon to Lake McClure.

Nine outfitters are running the Mercedthis spring; most offer paddle options (everyone paddles). Cost for day trips runs about $80 to $100; overnights are about double. Weekend trips may be wait-listed by now; midweeks should still be open.

For information on Merced outfitters, callFriends of the River's Whitewater Booking Service at (415) 771-0400. The free service can help match you with outfitters who might still have space. You can also get a list of outfitters from the BLM, 63 Natoma St., Folsom, Calif. 95630. Outfitters are the best source of information on the suitability of river conditions for beginners.

Trout fishing is slowly getting better

This spring's low water may make it easierto fish the 3 miles of river from the park boundary to Foresta Bridge, near Redbud Picnic Area. The state's newest designated wild trout water, this should offer some great fishing in coming years. The limit of two fish more than 12 inches in length will allow smaller fish to reach maturity; restricting tackle to artificial lures with a single barbless hook will allow you to release fish unharmed.

"This stretch of water was chronicallyoverfished under the old regulations,' notes Richard May of California Trout. "Moderate growth rates won't reward us with big fish right away, but catches could improve this fall.'

Day-hikes for late-spring wildflowers

While there are no developed river-edgetrails, the abandoned rail grade along the north bank offers fairly level walking.

Between Yosemite and Briceburg, twobridges allow you to drive across the river and along short sections of the railroad grade, until stopped by gullies or washouts. Hikers can continue; resist the urge to cross on the few dangerously rickety trestles that remain.

At Briceburg another bridge crosses theriver. Cars with high clearance can follow the rail grade nearly 5 miles farther down the canyon, past three BLM camping areas with no water or facilities.

But some of the nicest hiking is up theSouth Fork, which branches off about halfway between Briceburg and the park. In April and early May, the hillsides above the river can be brilliant with 40 to 50 different varieties of wildflowers. Although the dry winter could affect the display, the hike alone is worth a stop.

The Hite's Cove Trail starts behind Savage'sTrading Post, a state historical landmark 7 1/2 miles below El Portal. While the best flower displays are within 1/2 mile of the highway, the first 2 miles expose the canyon's full diversity. Clinging to a steep hillside high above the river, the trail can be hot at midday; bring your own drinking water.

Because hikers must cross private propertyto get to the public trail, you need to sign the trail register in the store (open 9 to 7 daily), where you can also purchase a local wildflower guide.

What does the future hold?

This year is shaping up to be critical forthe future of the Merced. To share your opinions on wild and scenic status for the river, write to your representative or senator in Washington D.C. The Merced Canyon Committee, Box 152, El Portal, Calif. 95318, publishes a newsletter that will keep you up-to-date on events as they happen.

Photo: Manning their own paddles, rafters on the Merced River justbelow the entrance to Yosemite National Park negotiate low-water rapids

Photo: Searching for wildflowers, Scott leads uptrail above the South Fork, which joins the main Merced just below the bridge

Photo: Wild, scenic, and recreational statusas proposed (green tones) for the Merced and its South Fork above Lake McClure. A hydroelectric proposal could dewater 5 critical river miles below the entrance to Yosemite
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Merced River
Date:May 1, 1987
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